O ld Masters cover works of art made by artists working in Europe between the early-15th and the late-19th centuries. Artists in this category were born before 1820. Because it covers more than 400 years, it includes a variety of styles from the early Renaissance to Romanticism. Our results cover two major international auction houses: Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
While some observers say the Old Master market is becoming a “masterpiece market”, with a smaller number of high-value works playing a larger role in overall sales, others say it continues to be steady and solid.
Mostly because of the shrinking supply of works, sales of Old Masters make up only a small part of the overall art market at auction. However, sales have grown over the past five years, from $281m in 2018 to $390.4m in 2022. This was thanks to a growing number of $20m+ sales, which pushed the average price for an Old Master work to $5.7m in 2022.
In 2022, 69 Old Master works sold for more than $1m, for a total of $390.4m. The top lot was Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat, 1481, sold for $48.5m. Another of his works, The Man of Sorrows, 1500–10, sold for $45.4m and was the number three Old Master work sold in 2022.
The category saw a 45.7% rise in sales last year, over 2021, and a 145.7% increase compared to the first year of the pandemic in 2020, when just 46 lots sold for a total of $158.9m.
Sales of $1m+ works by Old Masters have grown by 38.9% over the past five years, from $281m in 2018 to $390.4m in 2022. The first half of 2022 started off strong, with $185.9m in sales, thanks in part to major rediscoveries, such as a 15th-century sketch of a nude male by Michelangelo, which set an auction record for a drawing by the Italian master when it sold for $24.3m. Similarly, The Man of Sorrows – an oil on panel – was once thought to be by Botticelli’s workshop but has been reattributed to the artist himself. The second half of 2022 saw a rise in sales to $204.5m.
Unlike other collecting areas such as Contemporary art, increasing global economic uncertainties did not deter Old Master sales in the second half of 2022. In fact, sales rose by 10% to $204.5m.
The majority (79%) of $1m+ lots sold since 2018 were in the $1m to $5m range. In 2022, 54 works (78.3% of lots) sold in this bracket. That same year, just 12 pieces in the $5m to $50m range sold, yet they accounted for 68.6% of the total sales value. Among them was Depositing of John Bellini’s Three Pictures in La Chiesa Redentore, Venice, 1841, by JMW Turner, which made $33.6m in the record-breaking sale of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s collection in New York. It was the top-selling Old Master painting by a British artist between 2018–2022, and the fourth-highest-selling Old Masters lot overall in 2022.
These trophy lots helped push the average price for an Old Master work to $5.7m in 2022, up from $3.4m in 2018. Most Old Master works in the $1m+ range found buyers. On average, 89.5% of works appearing in the saleroom over the past five years sold. While only 4.2% failed to sell in 2020, the figure rose to 14.3% in 2021 before settling at 11.5% in 2022. This compares favourably to the overall Old Master market, where 15% (6,413 lots) failed to sell in 2022.
TOP 10 $1M+ OLD MASTERS 2018–2022
|RANK||ARTIST||VALUE 2018–2022||LOTS SOLD 2018–2022|
|2||JOSEPH MALLORD WILLIAM TURNER (1775–1851)||$52.6m||8|
|3||EMANUEL LEUTZE (1816–68)||$49.9m||2|
|6||LUCAS CRANACH THE ELDER (1472–1553)||$36.2m||8|
|7||BERNARDO BELLOTTO (1722–80)||$33m||6|
|9||PETER PAUL RUBENS (1577–1640)||$22.5m||5|
|10||PIETER BRUEGHEL THE YOUNGER (1564–1638)||$21m||8|
For a complete five-year listing of the top 10 artists within this category, please download the Appendix
Sotheby’s provided proprietary data on people who placed bids on Old Master works with low estimates of $1m or more between 2018 and 2022. Although Europeans (53%) and North Americans (33%) were the main bidders, their numbers are declining. Asians represent just 7% of bidders, but their numbers doubled between 2021 and 2022.
Works by big-name Old Masters – artists recognised outside the specialist market – always attract buyers, experts say. Over the past five years, one name has stood out: Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, better known as Sandro Botticelli (around 1444/46–1510). The Florentine artist leads the list of the 10 most valuable Old Masters at auction for $1m+ works, with four paintings accounting for $187.1m in sales between 2018 and 2022.
The famed art historian and museum director John Pope-Hennessy once called the Italian artist “a giant among portraitists”, and it was indeed a rare example of this format – Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel, circa 1480 – that set a new auction record for the artist in 2021 when it sold for $92.2m. It is the highest price achieved for an Old Master work at auction since the $450m sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, circa 1500, in 2017.
After Botticelli, the most valuable Old Masters at auction are JMW Turner (with $52.6m in sales) and the 18th-century Venetian artist Canaletto.
Top Old Master By Lot: Canaletto
The Venetian artist Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697–1768), known as Canaletto, was the go-to artist for generations of wealthy Europeans on their Grand Tour of the continent, who often bought his meticulous views of Venice as souvenirs. Consequently, many ended up in notable private collections, including the British Royal Collection.
Between 2018 and 2022, an unusually large number of Canalettos with a low estimate of at least $1m appeared at auction. Out of 11 works offered, 10 sold for a total of $49.9m, making Canaletto the top-selling Old Master by number of lots and the third most valuable. His paintings accounted for 42.7% of the 18th-century Italian works sold – the largest segment of Old Master sales based on value during this period – and 3.8% of all Old Master works sold at this level.
Most of these Canaletto sales were in 2022, with six works making a total of $32.3m. (Two works with a low estimate of at least $1m sold for less than that, but are still included in the total.) Among the 2022 sales were two paintings from the Paul G Allen sale in New York, including The Grand Canal, Venice, Looking South-East from San Stae to the Fabbriche Nuove di Rialto, which sold for $11.8m – the top Canaletto lot sold in 2022 and in the period 2018–2022. It is the sixth-most-expensive Canaletto ever sold at auction. The record is $32.7m, set in 2005 for a rediscovered picture, Venice, The Grand Canal, Looking North-East from Palazzo Balbi to the Rialto Bridge, which was originally bought by Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister.
Experts say the appearance of so many Canalettos at auction is a coincidence. Major events often trigger works surfacing on the market and, in Canaletto’s case, it was the deaths of the major collectors Paul Allen and Ann Getty.
Next: The $1M+ Chinese Traditional Paintings & Works of Art Market
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